In a nationalized race, McAuliffe exploits the abortion furor while Youngkin hypes crime rates

September 13, 2021 12:01 am

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, left, and his Republican rival, Glenn Youngkin, are hitting on national political themes in their race. (Virginia Mercury)

Are Virginia elections really referendums on national concerns? Better yet, can candidates still compete on state-level issues?

Both major-party gubernatorial candidates are nationalizing their campaigns to one degree or another, a phenomenon once rare in the drowsy, off-year Virginia elections that traditionally focused on parochial, almost arcane issues.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe is staking his chances for a second term as governor in part on this year’s white-hot abortion debate, particularly a unique new Texas law that impedes women’s access to legal abortions by monetizing and weaponizing vigilante litigation.

It’s a powerful point that got even stronger after the U.S. Supreme Court let the law stand, at least for now, earlier this month. The Macker knows his way around the abortion rights issue, having played it to his advantage in winning his first term eight years ago over then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, an abortion opponent.

Add in bogeyman characterizations McAuliffe and his party paint of Republican Glenn Youngkin as a Trump proxy who dabbled in the former president’s stolen-election fantasies and supports “election integrity” voter restrictions and you have a scary portrait of the GOP nominee in a Virginia that has not supported a Republican in any statewide race since 2009.

Youngkin is responding with ads hammering McAuliffe for crime rate increases during his first term. Youngkin’s claim that Virginia’s homicide rate grew by 43 percent (from 3.9 per 100,000 population in 2013 to 5.6 in 2017) is accurate, according to FBI Uniform Crime Report stats. It ignores that Virginia’s rate tracked national increases.

So will nationalizing our governor’s race work? And didn’t we just finish an exhausting referendum on national issues in a presidential election so hateful that it literally came to blows?

Virginia is known for a contrarian streak, particularly in statewide elections where turnout has averaged about one-third less than that of the preceding year’s presidential election since 1977.

Remember that time 28 years ago when Democrat Mary Sue Terry, then the state attorney general and prohibitive favorite in the governor’s race, went all-in on abortion rights against an unknown former congressman and football coach’s son named George Allen?

The tobacco-chewing, cowboy-booted Allen saw the restiveness in Virginia over a spiking violent crime rate at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in the early ’90s, and he crystalized it in a simple proposal to get tough on criminals by eliminating parole. To Terry’s misfortune, abortion rights weren’t news that year as they had been four years earlier when L. Douglas Wilder leveraged a Supreme Court decision upholding Missouri abortion limitations. Election night 1993 was not a happy one for Democrats who relinquished the Executive Mansion to a GOP that had been out of power for a dozen years.

Four years later, another Republican, Jim Gilmore, seized on perhaps the most provincial of issues with a clear mantra perfectly suited for bumper stickers: “No car tax!” It wasn’t a burning issue but Gilmore’s campaign made it one, mining a deep vein of quiet indignation Virginians felt every year when they stroked fat checks to their local governments for the privilege of driving vehicles for which they already paid sales and gasoline taxes. That election night was even more dismal for the Democrats as the GOP swept all three statewide offices. Over the next four years, Republicans would win General Assembly majorities, both U.S. Senate seats and most of Virginia’s 11 U.S. House seats for the first time in history. Democrats have enjoyed that same wall-to-wall political hegemony in Virginia since 2020.

Maybe it’s a studied move for Youngkin to borrow and modify Gilmore’s state-focused approach by promising to end Virginia’s sales tax on groceries — the ultimate kitchen table issue.

It aligns with his tax-cutting message in which he proffers the unexpected $2.6 billion state revenue surplus as proof that taxes are too high. Among the many complexities of Virginia’s public finances Youngkin ignores is the fact that most of the windfall derives from the unprecedented federal pandemic-relief spending spree dating to the Trump presidency.

“Both campaigns are nationalizing this race and tapping into national sentiments,” said Mo Elleithee, founding executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and veteran of numerous Virginia campaigns as a Democratic strategist.

Republicans everywhere – particularly in Virginia and New Jersey, the only states that elect governors this year – are echoing Fox News talking points about crime rates. And Democrats from statehouses to the White House are raising the alarm that Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion 48 years ago, may soon be reversed.

For McAuliffe, the abortion issue was low-hanging fruit. He was scoring unanswered points on Youngkin even before the Texas law took effect and a Supreme Court packed with fresh, conservative Trump appointees gave it a qualified pass. But events of the past two weeks supercharged the issue for McAuliffe and the Democrats who now position themselves to Virginia’s dominant moderate and suburban voters as the only thing standing between them and Texas-style abortion bans.

McAuliffe is shouting it from the rooftops. It has sticking power, too, because of Youngkin’s covertly videotaped assurances to anti-abortion activists posing as his supporters that he had to keep quiet about his plans to curb abortion rights until after he’s elected. “I won’t go squishy on ya,” he chirps helpfully at the close of the video that McAuliffe’s campaign and the Democratic Governors Association have parlayed into devastating TV and online ads.

McAuliffe is also hammering Youngkin for his refusal to support mandatory mask and vaccine mandates in certain circumstances. In many Republican-ruled Deep South and Midwestern states where soaring COVID-19 hospitalizations and body counts rival last winter’s record highs, GOP governors have resisted mask and vaccine mandates.

Public polling showed Virginia’s race was a statistical dead heat – within the margins of sampling error – during the summer, but McAuliffe appeared to open a lead in polls conducted last month. The Real Clear Politics average of Virginia gubernatorial polls for August was 5.2 percentage points. All polls show large swaths of voters remain undecided.

It’s not just Virginia where political campaigns are being nationalized. Elleithee said it’s a trend enabled, at least in part, by the depletion of state- and local-level journalism over the past two decades, increasingly ceding the rostrum to national media.

Elleithee noted that in his first Virginia campaign, U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb’s unsuccessful 2000 re-election bid, “Virginia had one of the most vibrant state and local press corps in the country. Now, it’s a shell of what it once had.”

A generation ago, fiercely competitive correspondents from newspapers, television stations, wire services and radio stations across Virginia traveled widely to cover political news and elbowed one another over limited Capitol Square filing space and seating at statewide political debates. That hasn’t been the case for years as financially struggling legacy news media pared their state politics and government coverage. That decline, Elleithee said, has made state issue-driven campaigns difficult.

“Voters – consumers of news – are getting mainly national news. They’re not getting these local issues. So candidates are talking about those (national) issues more. It’s what breaks through the noise,” Elleithee said.

“Think about this: Could Gilmore’s car tax campaign work given today’s Virginia press corps?” he said.

I doubt it.

Swarms of reporters who focused solely on the minutiae of public policy dissected and wrote incessantly about Gilmore’s idea from multiple perspectives for months on end, keeping it top-of-mind across Virginia in that political season.

Today’s press corps includes the brightest, most innovative and savvy journalists I’ve ever seen cover government and politics in any state capital, and they work incredibly hard. But they’re spread hopelessly thin.

The lack of investment in state-level journalism has crippled our ability to prosecute Virginia elections on Virginia issues.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]